Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Me and My Droid: A User Review

By Taylor Conant

I've had the Motorola Droid (with Verizon Wireless) since late November and at this point I think I can speak with confidence when I say, undeniably, this phone is great... and not so great.

The display is great. It's quite large (larger than the iPhone's, the seemingly most important and relevant way to describe via comparison). It's also sharper, more vivid and brighter. If you show your Droid to an iPhone person whose heart has not completely calcified with fanboy jealousy they will likely admit this to you, sometimes grudgingly but most times with wondrous enthusiasm.

It's a touchscreen display, too. You can interact with the phone by tapping and dragging all over the place. The built in browser is not as intuitive as the iPhone-- double tap to zoom in, double tap again to zoom out, and flick your fingers across the screens surface to scroll. No precision-pinching. When entering data on the screen (such as composing a text, e-mail or typing in a URL) a large keyboard appears. The Droid can be turned 90-degrees at any time and the screen will reorient horizontally, along with the keyboard, which allows for quick dual-thumb typing.

Even better, the Droid has a full slide out QWERTY-keyboard, with Alt-key presses on most keys and a 4-way directional thumb pad and enter button on the side. When I first got the Droid, I hated the keyboard. Hated it. It's a little cramped. The buttons are small. It's too flat! I don't even have large hands and I was seriously fumbling on the thing after experiencing the joy of rapid-fire texting on my old LG enV2 (dang, I still need to sell that thing on eBay or something!) But my frustration gave way to determination and, low and behold, I got used to it with some practice. I'm now a whizbang. I've had a few people comment to me in various settings that I seemed to be hammering out an essay on my phone. When someone says that to you, you know you've arrived in Phone-Keyboard Heaven.

There are four buttons along the bottom of the display, on the exterior case of the Droid: Search, Home, Menu and Back. This should be pretty self explanatory but, Search lets you search anything within whatever program you're using at the time if that's available (search your e-mail, search the web, search Google Maps, search your phone), Home gets you back to your main, icon-scattered home screen, Menu brings up a menu with additional options based on context and Back will navigate you back through pages and menus and eventually to Home if you press it enough.

It doesn't always work as nicely as it should, though. Say you get a text-message. You read it. You hit Back. Sometimes Back dumps you into your text-messaging "app" where you can see a list of your other text-messages. Other times, Back dumps you into the Home screen. Why? I haven't figured it out yet but I am guessing if I tested it more it's got something to do with whether I accessed my text-message via the Notification Bar, or by going through the Messaging program from the Home screen. It's inconsistent, even if it is user-error, and it's middling on frustrating.

And how about that Notification Bar, huh? It seems to be something the Droid marketing machine has been proud of, but it's not as glitzy as it could be. Yes, it does a good job of keeping all notifications in one central, easy to find location, and it does keep the user from being annoyed by constant pop-ups. But much seems to be lost in the simplicity. If you don't happen to look at your phone right as or right after you're receiving a notification (such as a new text), you'll have to go into the Notification Bar and see what is bothering you specifically if you want more information than a program-specific icon.

Perhaps even more disturbing than this is the fact that, aside from incoming phone calls, the screen does not light up and display information when new notifications occur! I'll admit this could be a Droid noob's mistake as my phone, for whatever reason, did not come with a user manual, but I could find no setting within the phone anywhere that might change this. This is one of the incredibly not great things about the Droid-- even if you memorize the various custom notification sounds associated with your various programs (messaging, e-mail, Gmail, general phone notification, etc.), you still have to 1.) press the display power button to activate the display, 2.) slide your finger to unlock the phone and 3.) check the Notification Bar or relevant program to get an idea of what just happened. Oh, and then you have to 4.) decide if it was important enough to go through all that effort.

This is cumbersome. If the phone operated in a more intuitive manner in this regard all one should need do is 1.) look at the screen and decide if it's worth going through the other steps to retrieve the full message.

Something else you may have to get used to, which I realize now is cool, but was extremely annoying before I understood what was going on-- when you hold the phone up to your ear the display turns off so you save battery and don't accidentally press a key with your ear and say, hang up unexpectedly. If you need to interact with the touch pad (say you're accessing your voicemail) or you want to check your contacts, Messaging list or e-mail while on the phone and you remove the phone from your ear to more in front of your face, the Droid's gyroscopes sense this and turn the screen back on automatically. It takes a split-second though... until I figured that out, I'd hit the screen power button right away and inadvertently turn the screen off when it was trying to turn on, leaving me convinced that for some reason it took two presses of the power button to get the screen back on in this situation!

The 5MP on board camera is not so hot. It does video as well. And it has a flash. But it has trouble focusing a lot of the time. And the pictures aren't that crisp. Don't buy this phone for the camera, okay?

The Droid comes with a 16GB flash memory stick. Frustratingly, it's buried underneath the battery so you must power down the phone if you have some reason to remove it and put it inside something else. Luckily, the micro-USB (mini-USB? whatever it's called) port on the side of the phone that's used to charge it is also a quick and easy way to mount the phone's memory card via USB to any computer as an external drive, at which point one can easily get files onto or off of the phone's memory. This is also the way you can dump all your music onto the memory, which you can then access with the not-so-robust-but-still-usable Music "app" the Droid comes with. A 3.5mm jack on top of the Droid allows you to use your phone as an MP3-player on the subway or in your car hooked up to the speakers through an auxiliary cable.

What else? The Droid comes with Google Maps and real-time, turn-by-turn GPS navigation. It can give you directions for a vehicle or even on foot. It is sweet. You can go sell your Garmin on eBay once you pick up the Droid (eats through the battery fairly quick, though). The Droid supports the Android App Market-- it's not that exciting a place right now in terms of free apps, but it will get there. I've got Google Finance and the US Debt Clock apps, along with a few others, but there are no Droid versions of popular apps like Yelp, yet. The built-in personal e-mail app is pretty weak, and recently decided to stop checking for new e-mails according to the schedule I gave to it (it keeps forgetting), so if you're looking for something with Blackberry-like e-mail prowess, keep looking, and maybe even try a Blackberry.

As a heavy Google user, I think the biggest selling point of the Droid (and other Google Android OS-based phones) is the way the phone syncs with your Google accounts. Anytime I update my contacts on my phone, they are instantly updated on the web as well, or vice versa. I can access my GCalendar with the related app and the same syncing occurs. Same with GFinance. I'd just like to see some official GNotepad, GReader and GBlogger apps, as well. Picasa, too... the mobile version accessible via phone browser is cool, but wonky, and provides no way to really upload and manage my pictures.

Finally, the phone supports voice-recognition and voice-search, which are especially handy while driving. There's even a special Car Home screen that offers large, easily identifiable icons of things like Contacts, Maps, etc. along with a Voice Command button so you can simply tap the button and say "Dial ________ " and keep your eyes on the road (hopefully you've got a Bluetooth-enabled car audio system, too).

And the external-speaker (speakerphone) on the phone is LOUD. But the vibrate is feeble... be prepared to miss all kinds of calls as you walk around town with your Droid in your pocket set to vibrate.

Taylor Conant writes about economics, politics and liberty from Texas. He believes that no matter what we do, the jungle is everywhere.

1 comment:

  1. Does the droid userbase/culture have a method to "jailbreak" their device in order to customize it?

    I own the iphone 3gs and had similar gripes as the ones in the essay about how non-user friendly the system's capabilities were. But this was mainly due to Apple's restrictions on allowing non-approved or yet-to-be approved user hacks to be utilized by the phones user base. So I decided to do the "jailbreak", freeing myself from Apple's restrictions and allowing me to take full advantage of the phone's capabilities and the content produced by independent (independent from Apple) developers. Now the phone serves as a handheld laptop. It's extremely awesome.

    Plus I find the iphone preferrable to the other smartphone competition because I can carry my entire music library with me everywhere I go. None of the other devices afford me that ability as nothing else compares with the 30gb of space on my phone.

    Very nice read though.